Exploring the Integration of Social Justice into Social Work Research Curricula

By Vincent, Neil J. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Exploring the Integration of Social Justice into Social Work Research Curricula


Vincent, Neil J., Journal of Social Work Education


THE PURSUIT OF SOCIAL justice is a central value of the social work profession. Thus, social work educators have an important responsibility to impart this value to students. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) indicated this importance by requiring content on social and economic justice as a central area of focus in social work curriculum (CSWE, 1994). For the most part, curriculum-development research has focused primarily on the integration of social justice in social work practice (Schlesinger & Devore, 1995; Uehara, Sohng, Biren, Erera, & Yamashiro, 2004), policy, and human behavior and social environment (Greene, 1994; Queralt, 1996; Uehara et al. 2004) curricula. However, the integration of social and economic justice concepts into the social work research curriculum has received much less attention (Ewalt, 1994; Longres & Scanlon, 2001). This article presents a nationwide study of how social work research faculty members conceptually define social justice and apply it in their research methods courses. It presents the most influential contemporary theories of social justice for social workers and the relevant literature in this area. Finally, it offers implications for social work educators and future directions for research.

Social Justice Theories

Any exploration into the integration of social justice with social work research curricula requires a presentation of the most prevalent and influential theories of social justice. The theoretical foundation provides grounding for the pedagogical application of a concept that is complex, multifaceted, and not without controversy. Moreover, theories of social justice inform our fundamental professional values and ethics. Given this, it is essential for social work educators to have knowledge about prevailing social justice theories. This article presents three such theories, two of which--Rawls' distributive justice perspective and Young's relational/processual perspective--have been the most influential on the social work profession (Longres & Scanlon, 2001; Uehara et al., 2004). The third theory is Sen's theory of social justice, which after nearly 2 decades is coming into prominence.

Rawls is considered one of the most influential philosophers on social justice in the 20th century (Sen, 2009). His seminal work, A Theory of Social Justice (Rawls, 1971), revived and transformed the prevailing thought on social justice in a radical way (Sen, 2009). First, there is his central concept of "justice as fairness," with the tenet that justice is essentially a demand for fairness (Rawls, 1971). According to Rawls, fairness is the avoidance of letting our own self-interest and personal prejudices dominate our behavior. It is a call to be impartial in our dealings with the world. Consequently, fair individuals in a society create a consensus of just principles from the concept of the "original position," in which individuals have no knowledge of their identities or self-interest and they develop a set of guiding principles of justice. It is this set of principles of justice from which basic institutions are established to govern a society. Rawls' theory puts primacy on social institutions as the impetus for the creation of a just society.

A second influential contemporary theory of social justice is Young's (1990) perspective, which emphasizes the relational and processual elements of society that create justice and injustice. In her book Justice and the Politics of Difference, Young offered a paradigm of social justice, though not considered a theory in the traditional sense, grounded in critical theory. In Young's view, critical theory "is a normative reflection that is historically and socially contextualized" (1990, p. 5). Young critiqued the prevailing emphasis on distributive justice theories, citing that these theories are too abstract and ignore the political nature of relationships among social groups, where domination and oppression perpetuate injustices in society.

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